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A many-layered tale of loss, poetry, and ambivalent rebirth.,
By A Customer
This review is from: In The Shape Of A Boar (Hardcover)
Lawrence Norfolk is known from his previous books, "Lempriere's Dictionary" and "The Pope's Rhinoceros", as an extroardinary writer of historical worlds. Those books were exceptional entertainment. With "In the Shape of a Boar", however, Norfolk does something new. This book is shorter (just over 300 pages) than the other two and much more poetic, and the historical setting is the relatively recent World War II. And rather than merely creating an historical thriller, mystery story, or picaresque, Norfolk weaves a complex layering of stories in which psychic truths are hidden, revealed, transformed, hidden again.
The book's first third is a beautiful, haunting, and innovative retelling of the boar hunt in Calydon, involving the fathers of the Greek Trojan War heroes and Atalanta, the virgin huntress. The reader is vividly placed in the changing landscapes of the hunting expedition, from sweltering valley to icy shadowed gorge, experiencing the hunters' growing misery and filth, even how their sandals feel through mud and on rock. It is extensively footnoted for sources in the first 30 pages and again in the last 10 pages. As the story proceeds, Calydon is decimated and deserted, all of the heroes are killed or flee, and only Meleager, Atalanta and her dog, and Meilanion remain to face the boar at the end.
Golden-haired Meleager had invited the heroes to help him. His father, king of Calydon, invoked the boar by neglecting Artemis in his first-fruits sacrifice. Atalanta, whose protector is Artemis, is a resented presence among the men. There is a tense sexual electricity between her and Meleager, which makes things worse when the heroes start hating Meleager as well. Meilanion is a cousin of Atalanta and desperately in love with her. He sets out on his own in the hope of killing the boar himself.
Meleager and Atalanta track the boar to a cave at the edge of a barren crater in the mountains. Meilanion follows them, watching them enter the dark cave. He hears a struggle and then nothing. He enters the cave and hears the sound of another's breathing -- the boar? one of the hunters?
The rest of the book is about Solomon Memel, a German-language poet living in Paris. After the war, he published a long poem telling the story of Greek partisans cornering a German SS officer in a cave, a hunt he was part of and which he tells in terms of the ancient boar hunt in the same place, now called "The Cauldron". Around 1970, a friend from before the war comes to Paris to make a movie interpretation of his poem. The rest of the book becomes a tense dance towards uncovering the truth behind the poem.
Norfolk describes the life of the three friends in pre-war Romania: Sol, Ruth (the actor-cum-director), and Jakob. When the intent of the Nazi occupation of their town becomes clear (they are Jewish), Ruth does what an attractive young woman can to survive and arranges for Sol and Jakob's escape. Jakob disappears, however, and Sol walks alone to Greece.
After Sol's poem becomes famous, a heavily annotated edition appears from Jakob, casting doubt on its veracity. Sol is unable to contact Jakob, but his reputation is eventually restored by others. Ruth appears to still doubt the story. Or she feels it is the wrong one, as her movie retells the poem as simply between a young woman and an older man in a Paris apartment -- her post-war story.
After the stunningly poetic language of the first part, the rest of the book requires an abrupt adjustment in expectation, but it soon picks up as more of Sol's stories are told and Ruth's efforts instensify to get him to admit something she is sure he is hiding, from himself if not from her. (Fifteen years earlier, he sat with a bottle of whiskey waiting for a telephone call from Ruth. The whiskey was gone when her call came. Sol can't remember what he said to her, and Ruth didn't understand it. At the end of Sol's escape from Romania, he was guided in his delirium into The Cauldron by Jakob. These are just two of the loose threads that nag them.)
Norfolk's achievements in this book concern the evocations of memory -- its necessity and its pain. The boar hunt may or may not be fictional, but the catharsis it provides is indeed true. Uncomfortable truths may lurk in the boar's dark cave, and it might be better that they stay there. Bringing the boar into the light brought about Calydon's destruction. Sol's past might have died in that cave, in that cauldron; perhaps by writing his poem, he killed it, leaving him unable to relate to Ruth as he once had. By writing the poem, he wrote his own death perhaps but also his rebirth.
There is no resolution to these tensions. The last section, only two pages long, returns to the poetic tones of the first part. It is called after the region of Calydon "Agrapha", "unwritten"; the surviving hunter embraces his dying boar.
"In the Shape of a Boar" is a profoundly haunting read. There is much mystery in this book and its careful and complex tale deserves multiple readings.
--Eric Rosenbloom, Brooklyn, New York